Typically my characters don’t spend a lot of their time eating. It’s not because I’m not interested in food, quite the contrary (see my previous BG posts on the subject, here, here, and here.) No, it’s usually because, if I can paraphrase my agent for a moment, I’ve found my characters something more interesting to do. Having your characters sit down and eat is a useful device, however, in that it does give them something to do – even if it doesn’t forward the plot – while they’re talking, which usually does forward the plot. As a general rule, characters need to be doing something while they talk to each other, and if they eat, you can also use the details of the food to help with world-building and setting.
Still, even when my characters are eating, they’re not usually attending a banquet. Indeed, banquets and eating scenes in general are usually something we encounter visually, rather than on the page. Who can forget the scene in the Errol Flynn version of The Adventures of Robin Hood, where he walks into Prince John’s supper banquet with a stag on his shoulders?
Then, for those of us who are old enough (or who are 18th-century scholars) there’s the scene in the movie Tom Jones, in which Jones and Mrs. Fitzpatrick seduce each other while they eat. You’ll never see Cornish hens the same way again. And while I’m sure there’s something more recent, the food fight scene from Animal House has always been popular. Fans of Firefly, or of the many versions of Star Trek, for that matter, can recall episodes that included family-style meals, feasts, and general hanging-around-talking-in-the-bar. I always wondered whether anyone ever used the holodeck to go somewhere interesting to eat. I know I would have.
Now, if by chance we want to include a feast or memorable meal in one of our own books, as writers we’ve got plenty of resources (aside from stealing something from movies or TV, ahem.) Food and the preparation of food has become so popular lately that there are whole television networks devoted to it; recipes for practically anything are available on the internet, and there are all kinds of books, such as Charlemagne’s Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting, that can give us ideas and historical context for any feasts we might need.
Luckily, I have several chefs in the family, and when I needed a royal feast for my novel The Storm Witch, I was able to draw on the experience of a meal prepared by the son of one of my cousins, Jose Ignacio Diaz Hellin, and his culinary partner, Alberto Dominguez Saenz. Both the original meal and the feast I made of it would take too much space to describe here (let me know if you’d like the details) but basically I turned a chef-chosen restaurant meal for five people into a feast by making each item a separate course.
In and of themselves, of course, feasts and the reasons behind them can tell your readers a great deal about the world you’ve created, and that’s another reason to think about food when world-building.
Gee, it’s January. I wonder what made me think about food and feasting?
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures (now available in omnibus editions), as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she is writing the upcoming Halls of Law series. Find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @VioletteMalan..